Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo rekindled American interest in the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1980: a breach of diplomatic sovereignty and sanctity that seemingly marked the end of conventional diplomacy, and front-burnered a scarier, more confrontational world. For a large segment of the population too young to remember it, Argo was an introduction to the dark incident. But Affleck’s film, as good as it was, was always more of a politically-cloaked caper than an inventory of uncomfortable truths, a dramatic thriller wrapped up in some dodgy fashion choices but also fashionable and entertaining notions of American exceptionalism. The politest of pushback, then, arrives in the form of the documentary Our Man in Tehran, a characteristically Canadian rebuttal that focuses on the prime role of diplomat Kenneth Taylor in helping to first house and then funnel a half dozen American counterparts out of harm’s way.
Taylor was Canada’s ambassador to Iran at the time of the crisis, when the American Embassy came under siege and was overrun by student protestors. Six Americans escaped the compound, and took up hiding in the homes of Taylor and, then, another Canadian diplomat, John Sheardown. Over the next several months, a plot would be hatched to get them out of the country, circumventing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard by having them pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations. Says Taylor, by way of explanation, “We proposed posing as petroleum engineers, agronomists or nutritionists. The CIA proposed the movie scenario, which was ingenious, but complex and complicated.”
It’s this sort of humorously gentle chiding that informs the tone of Our Man in Tehran. There doesn’t seem to be an axe to grind amongst interviewees so much as maybe just some fingernails to file. Time and again, co-directors Larry Weinstein and Drew Taylor softly compare and contrast the perspectives and attitudes of Canadians with their American counterparts, to occasionally amusing effect. (Former Prime Minister Joe Clark even sums up President Jimmy Carter thusly: “I found him a very sympathetic person—I’ve always said that I felt he could be a Canadian.”)
In its singular designation, the film’s title (which it shares with a 2010 book by Robin Wright, coming from a quote by President Carter) is somewhat misleading. While the movie is indeed built around Taylor, and his essential efforts in the continuing safety of the Americans, its strength actually lies in the breadth of its interviewees, which include escapees like Bob Anders, as well as hostages like William Daugherty, who weren’t part of the safe group. (Tony Mendez, whom Affleck played in Argo, is also interviewed.)
Canadian journalist Carole Jerome and the aforementioned Clark provide valuable perspectives on their native country’s political inner workings during the crisis. Meanwhile, Gary Sick—a Middle East specialist who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford and Carter—lends insight as to the pre-revolutionary build-up of tension in Iran (noting that Carter was betting his presidency on the Camp David Accords and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and that not much of anyone was paying attention to the country), and Carter’s thought processes and responses after the hostage-taking.
The result is that most of Our Man in Tehran’s biggest revelations have to do less with the hostage exfiltration itself, and more with adjacent big-picture issues, like Carter’s exceedingly complimentary 1978 New Year’s toast to the Shah helping to foment opposition to him back in Iran. These illuminate the thinking of the Iranian people and revolutionary leaders at the time, in ways sometimes sympathetic and sometimes not.
Luxuriating in the sort of complexity that streamlined films have a difficult time fitting into the confines of a cathartic narrative, Our Man in Tehran is a worthwhile complementary piece to Argo (one can envision it being screened as part of a double feature in high school history classes, as long as American pride permits it), and certainly an involving and rewarding watch for history buffs. More than that, though, it offers a look at the nuts and bolts of diplomatic efforts—how human emotions will always steer the decision-making process, and how, during a time that many insist is fraught with special and unique challenges, we remember to always get a little bit of perspective from the Canadians.
Directors: Drew Taylor, Larry Weinstein
Starring: Ken Taylor, Joe Clark, Gary Sick, Carole Jerome, Tony Mendez, William Daugherty, Bob Anders, Zena Sheardown
Release Date: May 15, 2015 (New York and Los Angeles); May 22, 2015 (expanding)
Entertainment journalist Brent Simon is a superb parallel parker and sworn enemy to auto-play website videos, as well as a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.